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The Metropolitan Revolution: Cities on the Rise out of Necessity

In the face of “federal gridlock, economic stagnation and fiscal turmoil,” cities and metropolitan areas across the country are tackling the pressing problems that Washington won’t, says Jennifer Bradley, a fellow at the Brookings Institute Metropolitan Policy Program. Her new book The Metropolitan Revolution (with Brookings colleague Bruce Katz) is about cities that are instigating change from the ground up in partnership with nonprofits, foundations, and citizens.

Their practical and oftentimes ad hoc solutions come from what Bradley describes as a profound behavioral change: “People are staring to ask, ‘What can we do together that we can’t do by ourselves?’” Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the same ethos behind the sharing economy, an economic trend that Bradley believes emerged from the Great Recession.

Inspired by these trends, I asked Bradley what the metropolitan revolution means for the average citizen, why it’s happening now, and whether or not we’ll see new regulatory frameworks that better reflect the needs of cities. And because Bradley has spoken about the challenge of inviting wider participation in the sharing economy, I asked her to describe what she believes are the biggest opportunities for it.

Jessica Conrad: In your new book The Metropolitan Revolution, you describe how power is shifting away from federal and state governments to cities and metropolitan areas. What does this shift mean for the average citizen?

Jennifer Bradley: The shift means that there are more opportunities to engage networks of power than there have been in the past. If Washington drives change, and you’re just one of however many voters in your state, the decisions made in Washington might seem very distant and arcane.

But if metropolitan areas drive decisions about the shape of their economies instead, citizens can intervene in a lot of different ways. They have access to elected officials, for example, and university officials, philanthropy leaders, and leaders of civic institutions—any number of entrepreneurial community members that are involved in making decisions and making change. And one of the really exciting things is that these networks of power span jurisdictional boundaries.

Jessica Conrad: Why is this power shift happening now?

Jennifer Bradley: I think the Great Recession forced people to think differently, and two things happened. After the initial and vitally important infusion of federal funds from the Recovery Act, the federal government stopped being a source of policy innovation. There was a debate about whether the Recovery Act was too big or not big enough, and then there was a kind of partisan lockdown. That’s not to say that the federal government totally checked out, but there still isn’t a lot of intellectual energy in Washington devoted to thinking about the economic model that got us into the recession or about how to get into a different and more sustainable economic growth pattern.

Even so, we know the growth model that led to the recession was based largely on consumption. It was about housing. It was about retail. It was about building new subdivisions and then building the retail infrastructure to fill those new houses with a lot of stuff. It was not focused on production or on the tradable sectors where goods are produced and sold to people across borders. As we know from thinkers like Jane Jacobs and economists like Paul Krugman, the tradable sector is what drives economic growth.

We need to get back to basics and think about what we produce and trade. But the federal government isn’t leading the way, and states are becoming increasingly partisan and struggling with their own budget deficits. As a result, metropolitan areas are starting to say to themselves, “We’re it! We are where innovation happens.” From patents to STEM programs to universities, cities have the key ingredients for an export- and innovation-oriented economy—and they know they have to make change for themselves.

Jessica Conrad: Can you give an example of a metropolitan area that’s taking control and shifting its economic orientation?

Jennifer Bradley: Sometimes the shift occurs at the city scale, not necessarily the metro scale. In 2008 when the financial sector melted down, for example, the Bloomberg administration realized they had a problem on their hands. They did some studies right after the crash and found that the financial sub-sectors based in New York were not projected to grow at all. So they said, “We have to reorient our economy. We can’t be so dependent on finance.”

City leaders talked to three hundred businesspeople and dozens of university presidents and community groups and asked them this question: If we could do one thing to diversify NYC’s economy, what would it be? There wasn’t a consensus by any means, but the need for more technology talent became apparent. The head of Macy’s said to the deputy mayor, “You think I’m selling pots and pans and blue jeans. But I’m a tech company. If you look at my supply chain, if you look at how I’m reaching out to customers, both require technology—and I don’t have the tech talent.”

So NYC held a competition around the creation of an applied sciences technology school, and since then four campuses have been announced. NYC didn’t wait for the state or federal government. Instead, the Bloomberg administration leveraged about $130 million of its own funds for infrastructure improvements, which helped them secure about $2 billion in private investments. The project is a thirty-year undertaking, but over time the city expects to see tens of thousands of new jobs and hundreds of new companies come out of the program.

Northeast Ohio offers another example. There, a group of philanthropies came to understand that their individual efforts around strengthening families and arts and culture were not going to be maximally successful until Ohio’s economy improved. So they funded a group of intermediary institutions focused on manufacturing, biosciences, entrepreneurial startups, and water and energy technologies. As a result, more than 10,000 new jobs were created, amounting to roughly 333 million in payroll dollars and billions of dollars in new investment in Akron, Cleveland, Canton, and Youngstown.

What’s so compelling about these two examples is that they demonstrate behavioral change. Philanthropies, individual jurisdictions, businesses, and governments haven’t collaborated this way before. It’s not often that you see such a self-confident administration say, “We don’t know what the answer is. Do you?” But that’s exactly what the Bloomberg administration did. And while many people think philanthropies are just a bunch of generous people being altruistic, philanthropies actually have a strong desire to show that their initiatives are making a big difference and are not always inclined to share resources or get behind a common agenda as a result. But that’s exactly what the northeast Ohio philanthropies did. They said, “Nothing’s going to change until we break out of our silos and pool our resources.”

People across the U.S. have told me over and over again that collaboration and networking made a difference. It’s the same ethos behind the sharing economy. People are starting to ask, “What can we do together that we can’t do by ourselves?”

Jessica Conrad: Why didn’t cities collaborate this way in the past?

Jennifer Bradley: The original model for cities and suburbs was based on competition and developed by an economic theorist named Charles Tiebout. Called the Pure Theory of Local Expenditures, the idea was that there would be high tax, high service jurisdictions and low tax, low service jurisdictions and whichever ones more people liked would win. People would sort themselves based on their preferences and everybody would get the kind of local government they really wanted. But the theory assumed that people had perfect information and perfect mobility and that jurisdictions wouldn’t implement things like exclusionary zoning or tax giveaways.

But again, I think we’ve started to overcome this model at the municipal level to some extent. For example, Washington D.C. and two big suburban counties in Maryland have agreed to raise their minimum wage over the next three years. Previously, local governments would have wanted to compete very aggressively on wages. If a neighboring jurisdiction raised its minimum wage, you’d think hot dog because big companies that thrive on low-wage workforces would flock to your jurisdiction instead. But in this case, all three jurisdictions are saying “No, we aren’t going to let big companies pit us against each other.”

We’re no longer locked in a struggle where one jurisdiction’s gain is another jurisdiction’s loss. Of course this shift toward collaboration isn’t ubiquitous, but there are signs that local governments are beginning to think in new ways.

Jessica Conrad: In your short video Redefining Cities, you explain that the Chicago metropolis, for example, spreads across three states and 554 municipalities, yet people’s lives aren’t confined by those political boundaries. Will civic leaders change our regulatory and legal frameworks to better reflect the “geography of the metropolis”?

Jennifer Bradley: I’m not sure, but what’s really interesting is the change I’ve observed in the field over the last 15 years. In the late ‘90s, people were really struggling with the idea that someone might live in one jurisdiction but work in another. The question was: Could that person’s voice be heard in the jurisdiction where she or he spent such a big chunk of the day? So we focused on creating metropolitan governments, but that’s actually very difficult to do because people get so attached to their local governments.

As I’ve explained, local governments are gradually beginning to find non-official ways, non government-y ways, to work together—and they’re aided by networks of, again, businesses, philanthropies, and civic institutions that understand why sticking to jurisdictional boundaries doesn’t make sense.

When the mortgage crisis hit, for example, a group of suburbs in the Chicago metropolitan area decided to identify a shared solution and apply for federal grants together because each tiny jurisdiction didn’t meet the criteria to win a federal grant alone. By pooling their resources and populations they were able to clear the federal hurdle. They didn’t need the state of Illinois to create a new solution; instead they responded to crisis in an ad hoc way.

I think we’ll start to see even more practical solutions that could lead to large-scale collaboration without requiring any changes to the laws governing municipal boundaries. Of course critics may argue that all of this is just a bunch of talk until we have genuine tax-based sharing. But I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case. Cities are fairly fluid and, to my mind, an ad hoc approach to problem solving is probably best for now. Twenty years down the road we may need metropolitan governments, but I don’t think that’s the most pressing need today.

Jessica Conrad: Does the sharing economy play a role in the metropolitan revolution?

Jennifer Bradley: We don’t explicitly mention the sharing economy in The Metropolitan Revolution, but it’s certainly one of the new economic models that came out of the Great Recession.

My epiphany about the sharing economy came when I was about to deny my own participation beyond Zipcar. I thought, “Wait a minute. I take the bus most days of the week! That’s sharing. I am participating in the sharing economy.” Before we were talking about Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, and Airbnb we had shared book spaces called libraries. We also had shared recreation spaces called city parks. Cities provide countless opportunities for sharing, and while we don’t mention it in our book, it’s definitely the next logical place for our thinking to go. If cities and metropolitan areas really are helping us rethink outdated economic models and trying to bring economic security to more people, we can’t ignore what’s happening with the sharing economy.

Jessica Conrad: In your recent Techonomy video, you raise the question of equal opportunity in the sharing economy. Who has to champion the sharing economy before we can enable wider participation? Cities? Low-income people? Service providers? Who will lead the next iteration of the sharing economy?

Jennifer Bradley: I don’t know who it will be, but I would love to see somebody—maybe a sociologist or someone who works with low-income communities—help those people connect what they’re already doing to the mainstream conversation.

Because I’m sure there’s already a ton of sharing around food, handymen, and cosmetology services in low-income communities. I bet it’s happening left, right, and center. We’ve always used pejorative phrases like “off the books” or “underground” to describe that activity—phrases that increase the distance between what happens in low-income and middle-class communities. But if we’re starting to talk about what happens in middle-class communities differently, maybe we can view those other activities differently, too. Maybe it’s no longer “Some lady braiding hair and keeping her income off the books.” Maybe now it’s a peer-to-peer beautification service. A new vocabulary will help us invite people who have previously been excluded from the conversation into the conversation. It’s not about bringing the idea to them. It’s about making a bridge between what they’re probably already doing and the ideas around sharing that have gained a lot of energy and attention. That’s my hypothesis, and it’s testable. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’d like someone to tell me whether it’s true or not.

My second big hope has to do with regulation. We need to make the argument that what’s happening in middle-class communities is basically the same kind of behavior that local governments used to crack down on in low-income communities. If regulators allow Lyft and Uber to operate, then jitney services should be allowed to operate as well.

Jessica Conrad: Along the same lines, do you think cities will need to make policy changes to support sharing?

Jennifer Bradley: Yes, I do. I would love the excitement and energy around the sharing economy to kickoff a big regulatory conversation at the local level. Cities need to ask, “Do our laws get us the results we want? Or are there better ways to get the results we want?” Existing regulations aren’t just bad for the sharing economy; they pose significant limitations to other kinds of entrepreneurial efforts too because regulators tend to put them in a box. That’s fine for big companies and law firms and standardized service providers, but it doesn’t work for nimble startups.

This is not to say that I think all rules should be optimized for the sharing economy. However I do think it’s worth taking a look at how current regulation fits these innovative new business models. A lot of our current rules might end up being the best we can do, but I can’t imagine that’s true for all of them.

Jessica Conrad: You’ve suggested that an Uber-like system could solve the challenge of job access for low-income people. In what other ways might the sharing economy help address the needs of people who don’t have the resources for traditional ownership?

Jennifer Bradley: I think our first priority should be to figure out the logistical issues. How can we take advantage of emerging technology for people who may have texting capacity but don’t have smartphones? If a typical sharing-based service requires a credit card, how can we lower the barrier to entry? How can we vouch for consumers who may have limited credit? How can we invite more people into the system?

These are interesting questions, but again, I would need to know a lot more about what low-income people do and don’t need. I’m just making hypotheses. I want those people to have the opportunity to say, “No, you’ve totally misidentified the barriers. The barriers are actually these three things, and if you worked on solving them, we’d be off to the races.”

This is something I learned while working on the book. In Houston I interviewed people involved with Neighborhood Centers, a community center that asks area residents what’s right, what’s good, and what they want to build on instead of asking them what’s wrong and terrible. The idea is to invite people to act as partners in getting what they need because they know what they need.

Too often we develop our own ideas about what low-income people need, and it distorts the system because they have to do extra work to jump through the hoops we create for something that kinda-sorta meets their needs. But if we just sat down and talked to them and trusted them, then we could build a more efficient system that would work better for all of us. That’s the idea behind bringing people to the table to describe their own experience.

Jessica Conrad: What do you think is the greatest opportunity for sharing in cities right now?

Jennifer Bradley: I think the biggest opportunity lies in discovering how much sharing is already going on. My hunch is that we’ve either not considered certain forms of sharing or that we’ve been misdescribing them.

You can download The Metropolitan Revolution iPad app for free for more examples of metropolitan innovation. The app content is also available on Medium.

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This interview was coproduced with On the Commons.

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